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CD Review

Serge Prokofieff

Piano Music

  • Piano Concerto #5 in G Major
  • Piano Sonata #8 in B Flat Major
  • Visions fugitives, Op. 22/3, 6 & 9
Sviatoslav Richter, piano
Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra/Witold Rowicki
Deutsche Grammophon 449744-2 55:22
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Stronger than steel.

I tend to forget Prokofieff as one of the great pianists, since the composer overshadows everything else for me. But this CD drove home what I forgot. Prokofieff wrote four of his five piano concerti for his own use (the fourth, for the left hand, was for that difficult human being, Paul Wittgenstein; he may never have played it). Prokofieff's piano concerti surely must stand among the earliest modernist examples. He began the series in 1911 and finished up with number five in 1932. Keep in mind that Stravinsky's piano concerto appeared in 1924, Gershwin's in 1925, Bartók's first in 1926, and Ravel's two in 1931, by which time Prokofieff had almost completed the series. According to contemporary accounts and reviews, Prokofieff's piano technique - formidable to the point of intimidating - came over as hard and glittering. At any rate, that certainly describes most of his piano concerti, and this one especially. The liner notes make much of the fifth's difficulty and suggest that this may be one reason why it isn't as well known as, say, the third. Well, the third isn't exactly a pushover, either. It may well be that the fifth's reputation as "unplayable" has kept virtuosi from tackling it.

Neither a work's difficulty nor fears for his reputation ever kept Richter away from music he liked. In fact, I doubt he ever thought about such things. He always seemed not so much a player as an incredibly profound musical mind. I listen to a Richter performance and almost never think, "What fingers!" His technique is so strong that a mere listener like me needn't think about the mechanics of production. I do, however, think, "What power!" Often, Richter gives me the illusion that he channels the composer. Certainly, that's the case here.

The fifth concerto has an unusual design: five movements. However, the first three play with the same material but have it assume different characters. It's like looking at a sculpture under different light and from different angles: the first movement, a martial 3/4; the second, a pawky moderato march alternating with a jig; the third, cuts the first movement to the bone, throwing the highlights at us, one after the other. We don't get anything substantially different thematically until the larghetto fourth movement. Consequently, we perceive a "double" structure: a piano concerto in both five and three movements. Richter conveys the architectural ambiguity, which means at the least that he understands this concerto better than most. Up to now, the concerto has largely come across as fun and high spirits. Consequently, the slow movement catches the listener off-guard. Of all Prokofieff's piano-concerto slow movements, this strikes me as his deepest, anticipating the balcony scene of his Roméo and Juliet ballet, as well as parts of his sixth symphony. Those who see Modern music as a break with Romantic should listen to this. Like any Romantic concerto worthy of the name, it invests its most profound emotions in the slow movement (concerti didn't always work this way). It doesn't, however, merely moon about. There's plenty of steel in it as well. The Haydnesque finale allows the soloist and orchestra to kick up their heels once more, blowing away any residual melancholy. Richter handles the flash but manages to make you forget about the technique and concentrate on the music. And it's wonderful music. Prokofieff's stock has declined as Shostakovich's has risen. In recent years, one notes a tendency among writers to patronize him as a shallow, though musical petite maître, a psychological lightweight. Richter throws over all that in the slow movement. The pianist avoids every cliché of "slow-movement playing," carving out something both granitic and heartbreaking.

Around 1939, Prokofieff conceived of his sixth, seventh, and eighth piano sonatas in a group. The sixth appeared in 1940, the seventh in 1942, and the eighth in 1944. As European events marched along in the late Thirties and early Forties, the sonatas became responses to the Second World War. Each has its own character. The sixth is epic, in much the same way as Nevsky, written around the same time. The seventh - the most widely-played - is the most direct, the most efficient, saying the most in as few notes as possible. It's also the starkest and most aggressively Modern of the three. The first movement is as tonally untethered as Prokofieff ever got, but the rhythms are strong to the point of brutality. The eighth sonata, however, I think the richest. The richness, however, comes at a cost. The sonata doesn't escape the charge of a certain looseness. Those expecting a Classical or Romantic sonata should look elsewhere. I'd describe the first movement as a fantasia, beginning with Prokofieff night-music (Richter brings out the similarities to Chopin) and changing moods frequently and, for the most part, seamlessly. In terms of both length and power, this is the big movement. If the sixth beats a patriotic drum and the seventh portrays mainly mechanized conflict, the eighth reflects, without bombast, on past and present loss. Even the strife-laden sections of the movement exhibit a certain distance. The understatement creates an even more telling effect at climaxes. This isn't brutal power, but very human, even majestic anguish. Nevertheless, the movement ends with the recollection of struggle. The second movement resembles in its "feel" the sentimental slow movement of the seventh sonata. Perhaps, "sentimental" isn't quite right, since it implies emotional manipulation. Prokofieff walks a very fine line. I get the mental picture of soldiers singing a favorite ballad - the Soviet equivalent of "Lilli Marlene" - during a lull. The finale of the eighth begins, all things considered, a bit optimistically, but gradually becomes more and more reflective, as if the composer refused to settle for a simplistic "keeping on the sunny side." When the opening themes return, they do so in a proper scale, building to something very close to elation. Nevertheless, the effect of this last movement differs sharply from its counterpart in the seventh, which - though undoubtedly powerful - always smacks to me of agitprop and bravado, possibly because Prokofieff attacks the material so single-mindedly. In the eighth, Prokofieff gives us a kind of clear-eyed heroism.

The program ends with a few of the early Visions fugitives, a brilliant set of miniatures. As the title implies, they seek to capture evanescence. It's a Prokofieff take on Impressionism, without actually using any of the harmonies or techniques of Impressionist music. The musical outlines are generally sharper than what one gets from the French. These little pieces linger in the mind more than their length says they should.

Richter, of course, stars on this program, but conductor Witold Rowicki provides accompaniment worthy of his soloist. Among postwar conductors, Rowicki almost always flew under the radar, perhaps because he had to make his career in the Communist bloc, but I frankly prefer him to Karajan (then again, I prefer just about anybody to Karajan in symphonic music). Even so, I recommend all his recordings, especially the Dvořák cycle on Philips. If you see these, snap 'em up.

Copyright © 2005, Steve Schwartz